Ever since it started out as a humble search engine 11 years ago, Google's goal has been to organize the world's knowledge. In 2004, it took a big step in that direction with Google Books, a project that aims to digitize as many books as possible and make them available to the web-using public. The project proved controversial from the start, with U.S. publishers accusing the Internet giant of copyright infringement. Google eventually came to an agreement with them over the issue. But as a New York court tries to decide whether or not the agreement is legitimate, it's now Europe's turn to cry foul, with European publishers complaining the settlement is unfair.
For five years now, Google has been scanning books on a massive scale. The Google Books project has so far amassed 10 million books, in 400 languages (Latin, apparently, is one of the most common). But Google started all of this scanning without consulting rights holders first, and so in 2005, two U.S. bodies, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the Authors Guild, launched a class action against Google for copyright infringement.
Last year, they came to a settlement, which is now awaiting approval from a New York district court. Presently, Google Books gives readers full access to books that are out of copyright therefore, in the public domain but shows only extracts of books that are still in copyright, alongside information on bookstores and libraries where you can find them. Should the court approve the agreement, Google will be able to offer users the option to purchase full digital access to books that are still in copyright but are out of print turning itself, in effect, into a huge bookstore. As part of the settlement, Google pledged to pay $125 million compensation to the AAP and the Authors Guild and, in the future, to pass on a 67% share of the proceeds every time it sells an out-of-print book online.
The agreement may have appeased U.S. publishers, but their counterparts in Europe, along with some European governments, are up in arms over it. More than half the books scanned and digitized by Google are not of American origin, but European books aren't expressly covered by the settlement. This has raised the fear that Google could sell books that are out of print in the U.S. but not elsewhere to U.S. users without paying European rights holders a penny. "It is clearly discriminatory towards E.U. rights holders," Anne Bergman of the European Federation of Publishers wrote to TIME in an e-mail.
While critics worry that the settlement would legalize a digital "land grab" of historic proportions, Google insists that it simply wants to "help readers get access to more books in more ways," a Google spokesman says. "Our goal remains bringing millions of the world's difficult-to-find, out-of-print books back to life."
The New York district court has scheduled a fairness hearing for Oct. 7, in an attempt to decide, among other things, whether or not the Google Books agreement is anti-competitive. There has been a rush of last-minute filings, for and against the agreement, from rival companies, publishers, advocacy groups and even foreign governments, including Germany's (which opposes the agreement). Should Judge Denny Chin find against the settlement, the class action originally launched by the AAP and the Authors Guild would, in theory, continue. He could also decide against outright approval but still sketch out other possible solutions.
In the meantime, the European Union has started hearings of its own to look into the digital future of the book. Just before they started in Brussels on Monday, Google suddenly made some conciliatory gestures towards its European critics. "Books that are commercially available in Europe will be treated as commercially available under the Settlement," the Internet giant said in letters sent to various European publishers' associations. In other words: If a book is out of print in the U.S., but still for sale in Europe, Google would not consider it out of print, and therefore cannot sell it digitally in America. Google also offered to include a European publishers' representative and an international author on the board that oversees its Book Right Registry, which represents rights holders in connection with the settlement.
That's not enough for European publishers, however. "This is not much more than a tired PR maneuver," says Christian Sprang of the German Booksellers and Publishers Association. "I don't believe Google is really interested in a compromise." At the E.U. hearings in Brussels, the representatives of publishing groups and governments from Italy, Spain and France have been expressing similar fears. According to the International Herald Tribune, a spokesman for the French Ministry of Culture repeated France's long-held stance that Google's book project was a risk to cultural diversity, speculating that Google might withhold access to what is essentially "cultural data" best stored locally or nationally.
"[The European publishers] were not party to the original discussions [about the settlement], so feel doubly disgruntled," Philip Jones, managing editor of the British trade magazine The Bookseller, tells TIME. He points out that Google's recent overtures are in fact clarifications rather than concessions: "Google is merely agreeing to respect international copyright law."
But Europe's rage is tinged with a touch of shame, as the Google Books saga highlights just how far behind European nations lag in their own digitization efforts. When Google started the project five years ago, several countries France in particular raised the alarm and proposed grand plans to scan Europe's literary bounty. Still, "only some 1% of the books in Europe's national libraries have been digitized so far," Viviane Reding, E.U. Commissioner for Information Society and Media, noted in a joint statement, warning that "if we are too slow to go digital, Europe's culture could suffer in the future." With Google rewriting the book on the way we read, it's time for Europe to catch up.